A masterful near homage to Pilgrim’s Progress: souls redeemed through struggle.

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ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES

Hooper’s debut is a novel of memory and longing and desires too long denied. 

On Saskatchewan’s Great Plains grew 15 Vogel children. When Otto Vogel was still a child, half-orphaned Russell joined the brood. The Great Depression burned on, crops failed, and schooling was casual. One of the teachers was Etta, no older than Otto and Russell. World War II came. Otto left. Russell, broken leg improperly mended, could not. As Hooper’s shifting narrative opens, now-83-year-old Etta awakens, intending to walk to Canada’s east coast, leaving a brief note for her husband, Otto. She carries a bit of food, a rifle, and a note of her identity and home. To a Cormac McCarthy–like narrative—sans quotation marks, featuring crisp, concise conversations—Hooper adds magical realism: Etta’s joined by a talking coyote she names James, who serves as guide and sounding board. With Etta absent, Otto begins baking from her recipes, his companion a guinea pig, always silent. Soon Otto becomes obsessed with constructing a menagerie of papier-mâché wildlife. Russell, shy lifelong bachelor and Etta’s wartime lover, follows her, finds her, only to hear her urge him to seek his own quest "because you want to and you’re allowed to and you can. You could have if you wanted to enough"—the novel's thematic heart. Russell disappears into flashbacks. Hooper reveals more of Etta and Otto in letters exchanged during World War II, where Otto by turns is terrified, sickened and enthralled. Otto marries Etta on return, a less than perfect union shadowed by damaged Otto striking out at Etta. With beautifully crafted descriptions—derelict farm machinery as "gently stagnant machines"—Hooper immerses herself in characters, each shaped by the Depression. The book ends with sheer poetry, stunning and powerful, multiple short chapters where identities and dreams, longings and memories shift and cling to one character and then another within the "long loop of existence."

A masterful near homage to Pilgrim’s Progress: souls redeemed through struggle.

Pub Date: Jan. 20, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-5567-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 23, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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